American

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Baltimore native and widely respected young writer, has written a powerful article about the shocking riots that are taking place in that city this week, following the inexplicable death of an innocent African-American named Freddie Gray in police custody. The article is titled "Nonviolence as Compliance", and those three words say a lot.

You should read Ta-Nehisi Coates's article ... because he is expressing what every one of us feels as we begin to understand the depths of the problem of police abuse of African-American populations all over the USA. You should also read Coates's article because he knows Baltimore, and is speaking from a position of knowledge. Except when he gets to his last paragraph:

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.

"Nonviolence is a ruse"? The train just shot off the tracks here, and in a really bad way. The problem in Baltimore (and in the entire USA) is between police officers and innocent African-American citizens. I don't know if there is a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King anywhere on the scene in Baltimore this week, so it's weird that Coates chooses the (all too rare) political philosophy of nonviolent resistance as the target of his piece. And it's sad that this Atlantic Monthly article is now being widely spread, as if there were actual wisdom to be found in these angry and misguided words.

Nonviolence is not a ruse because nonviolent protest has an incredibly successful track record. In fact, there is no other form of political activism that has been anywhere near as successful around the world in the past 100 years. Nothing else comes remotely close.

The term "Nonviolence" is associated with the anti-British anti-Imperialist protest movement led by Mohandas Gandhi for many decades in India. While there is nothing simple about either Gandhi or about India, it is a basic fact that Gandhi's very courageous and excruciatingly tough campaign against the sometimes murderous oppression of the British Empire achieved its mission: India made Great Britain go away. It's hard to imagine how this goal could have been met so well without the strenuous application of the principles of Satyagraha, or Truth-force, which were widely influential as the moral foundation of the anti-British nonviolent protest movement.

It's because he was inspired by Gandhi's success that Martin Luther King adopted the principles of Satyagraha as a practical playbook when he began a protest campaign against segregation and institutionalized racism in the American south. With the nonviolent Martin Luther King at the head of the public protest through the 1950s and 1960s, great progress was made against racism in the United States of America.

"Nonviolence is a ruse". The guy can't be serious. He's certainly not thinking about the lessons of history. I wonder what path to justice Ta-Nehisi Coates considers more likely to help the African-Americans who fear the police forces that patrol them? I also wonder what effect Coates thinks his popular article will have on the sadly misguided racist police officials who already see African-Americans as potentially violent enemies? Coates is offering a path to greater alienation on both sides. And this is the article that's breaking the Internet today.

In case this isn't clear: I support the loudest possible public protest in Baltimore, and as far as I'm concerned it should go on forever and get louder and louder until change is accomplished. If I were able to be on the streets in Baltimore today, I would be there (just as I was there for the Occupy protests when I could be). Protests are great, and I don't even mind when they get unruly.

Nonviolence is about protest. Nobody logged more time, and endured more agony, in illegal public protest than Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi. They both went to jail constantly. They both gave their own lives for the cause. A serious dedication to nonviolence breathes life into a protest movement. It's what allows a protest movement to stay alive as long as it needs to, and ensures the enemies of the protest movement that the protest movement has got what it takes to endure.

"Nonviolence is a ruse." You lost the path here, Ta-Nehisi Coates. You just went over to the stupid side.

Nonviolence is not a ruse. Here are a few things that are a ruse: police violence, bad government, bad journalism. These are the frauds that must be continually exposed. More importantly, public apathy is a ruse, and hopelessness is a ruse.

Hopelessness is what Ta-Nehisi Coates is preaching today in the Atlantic Monthly. That's not what the brave people on the streets in Baltimore need today as they continue to make their voices heard.

8

Hopelessness is what Ta-Nehisi Coates is preaching today in the Atlantic Monthly. That's not what the brave people on the streets in Baltimore need today as they continue to make their voices heard.

view /CoatesNonviolence
Tuesday, April 28, 2015 10:02 am
Ta-Nehisi Coates says "Nonviolence is a ruse". Wrong.
Story
Levi Asher

On the morning of April 9, 1865, one hundred and fifty years ago, the main Confederate army attempted a last desperate escape from its encirclement southwest of Richmond, Virginia. The attempt was over by the break of dawn, and General Robert E. Lee sent a letter to General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant later described that he'd been suffering from a terrible migraine headache for hours on that morning, and that the moment he read Lee's letter his headache disappeared.

How does a war end? There are many different possible ways. Recent US wars in Iraq both ended badly and uncertainly, as our invading forces left vacuums of power behind. But questionable wars do not always end badly. The US/Vietnam War, which began exactly a hundred years after the US Civil War ended, was finally resolved in an luxurious European conference room by depraved and nefarious diplomats. And yet the unified Vietnam that emerged from this banal treaty turned out to be a peaceful presence in the world.

Ironies abound as we compare the unique ways a war can end. The Korean War never ended; it stands ridiculously at eternal stalemate, requiring armed guards to stand stiffly with weapons glaring at each other across a big fence to this day. They are marching at that fence right now, solitary soldiers in a war that has been dormant since the age of television: a show that nobody knows how to cancel.

World War One and World War Two each ended in opposite ways. The Second World War so completely exhausted all its combatants that most of the nations involved have managed to live peacefully next to each other since 1945. They seem to have learned a lesson that is all too easy to forget.

But the chaotic collapse of Germany 27 years earlier at the end of the First World War left a dreadful power vacuum. Extremist parties began rising up almost immediately in Berlin and Munich, as the leaders of the victorious nations met at Versailles to produce a formal treaty that would provide an enduring peace. American president Woodrow Wilson strongly urged an equitable settlement, along with the creation of a powerful League of Nations to arbitrate global disputes.

The League of Nations was formed, but Wilson's own Senate refused to ratify the treaty, mostly on petty political grounds. Led by Wilson's bitter rival Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the US Senate actually rejected the treaty that all the nations of Europe had signed, a treaty that was designed to curb the power of extremist parties that were then rising all over Germany. Four years later, Hitler staged his first putsch.

Some wars end in an overpowering sense of moral collapse. The literature and journalism of late 19th Century France shows a nation deeply wounded by the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War. But other defeated countries bounce quickly back, as Japan did after 1945. It's very difficult to find clear patterns of any kind that explain how a war ends, and what happens after it does.

150 years ago in Appomattox, Virginia, four years of ruinous war ended with an outburst of gentlemanly courtesy. According to all accounts of the meeting between Lee and Grant, both generals addressed each other with sincere warmth. Lee told Grant that his soldiers were hungry, and Grant ordered that they be immediately fed from his stocks.

Though this meeting went well, a bitterness has remained between the former South and the former North in the United States of America, and a political division has remained too. When a war is fought and the war ends, do the conflicts that originally created the war linger into the peace that follows? It does not seem so; rather the shame of defeat itself sometimes seems to become a new source of conflict.

War is a thing that self-perpetuates; this is perhaps the best reason why peace treaties are nearly always helpful. What, for instance, are the USA and Iran at war about today? Nobody really knows, and yet we do not seem to know how to end this war either. Sometimes there is a war that nobody wants to fight, and in fact the war has already been over for a long time, even though few have the insight to realize this truth.

* * * * *

I visited Appomattox, Virginia for the 150th anniversary. Here are some pictures I took while visiting the town and the historical park, where of course a reenactment was taking place. The specter of Robert E. Lee on horseback with an aide seemed to me to bear an unintentional resemblance to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The house is the reconstructed McLean House, where Lee and Grant's first meeting took place.

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Sometimes there is a war that nobody wants to fight, and in fact the war has already been over for a long time, even though few have the insight to realize this truth.

view /Appomattox
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 08:33 pm
Postcard: General Lee leaving Appomattox
Story
Levi Asher

A few days ago I began exploring how writers from Plato to Sebastian Brant to Katherine Anne Porter have written about a "Ship of Fools". This was inspired by my discovery that sixteen different songs with that exact title have been written and performed by major rock, punk, folk and pop artists between 1969 and today, and that several of these songs are remarkably good.

How is it possible that a fairly obscure literary metaphor would inspire so many different songs? What makes the idea of a ship of fools so relevant to modern songwriters, and how do each of their songs imagine the idea? I will examine each song in detail below in search of an answer.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the notion of a ship of fools can describe several different specific situations. In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the people on the ship are fools because they have no seamanship skills, and yet are far out at sea in a boat they do not know how to operate. This metaphor corresponds to the situation in several of the songs below.

In Sebastian Brant's 1494 popular satire Ship of Fools, the fools are disreputable and untrustworthy characters, depicted literally as jesters or clowns who represent various influential clerics, judges and rulers of the era. The idea of a ship of fools that symbolizes a debased and corrupt world also corresponds to several of the songs below.

In Katherine Anne Porter's 1962 novel Ship of Fools and the 1965 movie that followed, various characters are unintentionally foolish. They do not take over the ship as in Plato's Republic, nor do they rudely debase the ship as in Brant's satire. Instead, they try their hardest to make good decisions. They are fools in the most existential sense: they try to navigate their lives with intelligence and wisdom, but cannot seem to sail in a straight line. That situation is also captured several of the songs below.

After originally discovering that I owned six songs called "Ship of Fools" by the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant, I began searching iTunes for more songs with the same title, and was blown away by the variety I found. I ended up spending ten bucks buying ten more songs, thus creating a playlist that I listened to for several weeks. Remarkably, this playlist sounded great. Indeed, the musical and thematic consistency between the 16 different songs I found called "Ship of Fools" almost indicates some kind of nearly supernatural synchronicity across the deep blue sea of lyrical and musical creativity.

Here are a few notes on each of the sixteen songs. They are listed here in rough order from my least to most favorite. Videos are included for my top five.

16. "Ship of Fools" by Van Der Graaf Generator

"Ship of Fools" by the 1970s prog-rock outfit Van Der Graaf Generator is an instrumental, so it's hard to divine any themes. The tone and tenor of the song morphs from moody to bright to murky, which may describe an experience on a journey with a ship of fools. But it's hard to tell exactly what the title is supposed to indicate, if anything at all.

15. "Ship of Fools" by the Scorpions

The ship of fools
Keeps on rollin' through a deadly storm
It won't take long 'till we collide

The Scorpions of 1980s hair-metal fame are from Germany, so it's too bad they didn't find a way to properly channel the spirit of their countryman Sebastian Brant. I like the Scorpions best songs (like "Rock You Like a Hurricane", which would be an uncomfortable weather situation for a hapless boat). But their "Ship of Fools" comes off a bit limp. The lyrics are trite and unremarkable, and even the band's patented screaming twin-guitar attack fails to save the song.

14. "Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum

Ship of fools, drunken hearts
Making yet another new start
Ain't it hard to play that part
When you've got a drunken heart

"Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum adds an interesting twist to the question above: are the fools on our ship stupid, or crazy, or corrupt? In Soul Asylum's song, they are simply drunk, which is actually another reasonable interpretation of the phrase "ship of fools". The proverbial vessel in this song might be a frat bus or a party limo. The passengers claim to be looking for love -- "fool's gold" -- but are unlikely to find it. The lyrical equation is intriguing, but the track's power-punk rhythm could be better, and as one of only two punk songs on this list, Soul Asylum's "Ship of Fools" suffers badly in comparison to the track by Fucked Up (see below).

13. "Ship of Fools" by Sarah Brightman

Sarah Brightman's "Ship of Fools" is about a bittersweet love affair. I don't really go for her brand of sleekly produced pop vocal, but I do appreciate the sincerity in her voice as she yearns:

I'll do anything to get to you
Because we're riding on a ship of fools.

12. "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen

I'm not really sure what to think of "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen, which is entirely concerned with a woman who treats the narrator badly as herald angels beckon in the background with dark foreboding:

All aboard! Ship of fools ...

It's interesting that the narrator of this song, unlike those of most on this list, is not already on a ship of fools, but only hears angels calling him to come aboard. It's unclear what will happen if he does or does not answer their call. Overall, there is something here, but I wish Echo and the Bunnymen had developed the nautical theme more completely. This is a prototypical 80s song (like the superior Erasure track below), but it delivers an unexceptional journey.

11. "Ship of Fools" by Ron Sexsmith

I've never heard of Rox Sexsmith before, though I am pleased to find that he sounds a bit like Ray Davies of the Kinks. It's not clear if his "Ship of Fools" represents a love affair or the whole damned world, but it is clear that he sees no exit ramp on this unsteady vessel:

We are all on the same boat, darling
On the same rough sea
We are all on the same boat, darling
The ship of fools at sea

10. "Ship of Fools" by Harry Manx and Kevin Breit

Harry Manx is apparently the inventor of his own musical instrument, which adds resonating sympathetic strings like those of a sitar to an acoustic guitar. The effect is only subtly audible in this unique folky number, but it does give the musical setting a pleasing kick, and I also like it that this song goes meta with its theme, informing us that the narrator is only singing about a ship of fools because he heard a song on the radio.

Heard a song on the radio, growing dark
About the hard times coming down today
On a Ship of Fools ...

We must wonder, which "Ship of Fools" did he hear on the radio? And does he have a "Ship of Fools" playlist too?

9. "Ship of Fools" by Erasure

"Ship of Fools" by Erasure is the most painful love song on this list, and the best example of the dark synthesizer-driven 1980s musical genre that was once called "mope rock". In this song's tragic story, the fact that we are all stuck on a boat filled with idiots turns out to be the only shred of commonality that two lonely and isolated souls can connect about:

Ooooh, do we not sail on a ship of fools?
Oooooh, why is life so fragile and so cruel?


8. "Ship of Fools" by the Doors

The Doors deliver an apocalyptic "Ship of Fools" in late 1969, following the summer of Woodstock, the Manson murders and Apollo 11. Given Jim Morrison's bent for Jungian symbology, it's not surprising that the Doors were the first rock band (as far as I can find) to record a song called "Ship of Fools". But it is surprising that Morrison equates he proverbial ship with the USA space program, which had just succeeded in its greatest journey before the band recorded the song:

Evil walks on the moon ...

Is the Apollo 11 moonshot the ship of fools? I'm not sure if that's what this song is saying or not. I have huge respect for Jim Morrison and the Doors, and the main reason I don't fully love their "Ship of Fools" is that I sense it as a wasted opportunity. They could have opened it up into a ten-minute epic like "The End" or "When The Music's Over", and this would have given Morrison time to fully explore the literary potential of this song's title. Maybe this would have also allowed the usually brilliant Ray Manzarek and Robby Kreiger to perk up their riffs.

7. "Ship of Fools" by Fucked Up

Fucked Up delivers "Ship of Fools" as a straight punk rave-up, and blow Soul Asylum's besotted "Ship of Fools" out of the water with their Clash/Ramones-driven energy. The lyrics are enigmatic and fascinating, though the actual story about the boat gets lost in all the Rimbaud-esque symbolism:

The speaker and the spoke
The axle and the wheel
The teller and the tale
The flower and the bee
The sword and the steel
The beast and the yoke
The fish and the sea
he prisoner and the jail
Sinking on the ship of fools

6. "Ship of Fools" by Flyleaf

I was not aware of the "Christian band" Flyleaf, but Kristen May's sweet soprano voice is even more pleasing (to my untrained ears) than that of the grand Sarah Brightman. I'm also pleased by the lyrics, which fully develop the nautical theme and don't shy away from biblical connotations:

See them sailing away, singing on a ship of fools
When they tried to build a heaven, they always use the devil’s tools
Adam and Eve, now they’re putting on their clothes
Because they can’t undress the secret to make another garden grow

The following are my five favorite songs called "Ship of Fools".

5. "Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead

"Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead is a sublime slow ballad, and the lyrics tell a story of anger and defiance. This narrator intends to sink the ship of fools, though he rides on it while plotting his mutiny. I don't know how the song's story ends, but I hope the narrator wins. This is lyricist Robert Hunter at his very best:

Went to see the captain, strangest I could find,
Laid my proposition down, laid it on the line.
I won't slave for beggar's pay, likewise gold and jewels,
But I would slave to learn the way to sink your ship of fools.

I'm a huge Deadhead, though strangely this has never been my very favorite gentle-toned highly lyrical Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter ballad (that would be "Black Peter" or "China Doll"). But this is a well-loved song, and for good reason. The Dead's "Ship of Fools" has been notably recorded by Elvis Costello.

4. "Ship of Fools" by Robert Plant

Like a werewolf who finds himself infected, Robert Plant doesn't know how he wound up on his "Ship of Fools", but he knows he's on the ship and feels very little hope of finding a way to get off.

I built this ship, it is my making
And furthermore my self-control I can't rely on anymore.

This song recalls the original passage in Plato's Republic: the ship is desire, and the storm is the turbulence inside the human mind. Plant calls out meekly to "turn this boat around", but there doesn't seem to be anybody at the captain's wheel.

3. "Ship of Fools" by John Cale

"Ship of Fools" from John Cale's 1974 album Fear is one of the most haunting and beautiful songs on my playlist. I've raved before on Litkicks about John Cale's stunning work with Lou Reed, and "Ship of Fools" brings out the same qualities I've raved about before: that lilting, elegant voice, those chiming clockwork rhythms, the mysterious and complex musical undercurrents.

Cale narrates this song in the voice of a rustic, a dumb provincial traveler. In this song, "fool" refers not to madness or stupidity but just to a lack of brightness, an emptiness of the spirit. All the passengers on this gloomy boat seem to be in dire need of some kind of spiritual awakening. The places and names in the song hint at some kind of spaghetti Western locale, but Dracula shows up in Memphis, and the overalltone of the song appears medieval, as if inspired directly by Sebastian Brant's 1494 book of verse.

2. "Ship of Fools" by World Party

"Ship of Fools" by World Party was a big hit on MTV and FM radio in 1987. I liked the song then and I like it now. The catchy lyrics always struck me as a protest against the prevailing conservatism of President Ronald Reagan's America and Margaret Thatcher's Great Britain -- a howl of rage against policies that were pitting wealthy against poor and increasing the powers of corporations against the rights of individuals:

Avarice and greed are gonna
drive you over the endless sea
They will leave you drifting in the shallows
or drowning in the oceans of history
Traveling the world
you're in search of no good
but I'm sure you'll build your Sodom
like you knew you would
Using all the good people
for your galley slaves
as you're little boat struggles
through the warning waves

Unlike John Cale's meek journeyman, who only leaves his gloomy ship to stumble ashore and find something to eat, the narrator of World Party's "Ship of Fools" hates being stuck on an infernal vessel bound for oblivion, and begs to be released. "Save me!" the singer yells. World Party's "Ship of Fools" seems most likely to have been inspired by the Heironymous Bosch painting on the top of this page.

1. "Ship of Fools" by Bob Seger

After listening for several weeks to 16 different songs called "Ship of Fools", it came time to choose my favorite song on the list. The decision I arrived at surprised me, because I've never been a huge Bob Seger fan. But I can't deny that this was the song that gave me the most pleasure whenever it came on.

Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is a deceptively simple guitar-strummin' ballad that appeared on Seger's breakthrough 1976 album "Night Moves". It features an achingly gorgeous vocal line sung by Seger with suave sensitivity and real conviction, especially as the story ends:

I alone ... survived the sinking.

This calls to mind Ishmael at the end of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which is not a bad connotation for a song called "Ship of Fools". It's interesting that Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is one of very few on this playlist in which the ship of fools actually goes down. (Another is the Grateful Dead's, and in several songs it's not clear what the hell is happening to the ship. Interestingly, the Ship of Fools does not sink in the books by Sebastian Brant or Katharine Anne Porter.)

Despite the Melville shout-out, Bob Seger clearly seems to have based his "Ship of Fools" on the 1965 movie. He indicates this with his opening line:

Tell me quick, said old McFee
What's this all have to do with me?

But i's funny that he hands this line to a person named McFee, since the character who speaks the words in the movie is Carl Glocken. It's a well-chosen line, though, since Glocken stands as a representative narrator -- an eternal passenger, ironic and philosophical -- for every possible idea of a ship of fools.

Glocken in Katharine Anne Porter's novel Ship of Fools is a small person with no wife or children or career, apparently supported by a wealthy family somewhere on dry land. He spends his lonely life going back and forth over the Atlantic ocean on cruise ships. It's how he finds an endless stream of new superficial friends with which to strike up fascinating conversations. Glocken has developed a tough skin and a keen sense of sarcasm after many voyages.

Glocken is often insulted for being small, and is always banished to the "misfits" table in the cruise ship dining room. In one of the movie's climactic scenes, a dignified German Jew finds himself banished from the Captain's table to the "misfits" table after a Nazi bigwig complains. All the misfits at this table eventually become friends with Glocken, who observes all their dramas and is the conscience of the film.

Michael Dunn was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Glocken, the character who inspired Bob Seger's song. This seems suitable, since Glocken's ironic and dread-filled attitude deftly ties Katherine Anne Porter's "Ship of Fools" back to Sebastian Brant's "Ship of Fools", and Plato's, especially when he faces the camera to speak to all of us. "What's this all got to do with me?" Glocken asks.

Indeed, what? Well, don't you know ... we're all stuck together on this ship of fools.

5

The image of the "Ship of Fools" has appeared in several books, a movie, and sixteen songs by artists like the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Robert Plant, Soul Asylum, Sarah Brightman, Bob Seger, the Scorpions, Echo and the Bunnymen ...

view /FoolSongs
Sunday, March 29, 2015 09:09 am
A playlist of 16 different songs titled "Ship of Fools"
Story
Levi Asher

If you've heard any recent news coverage about the peace agreement between Iran, USA, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China that will hopefully move forward this week, there's a good chance this is because the opposition in USA has been so noisy. We've seen big headlines about Republican hawks inviting Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu to speak out in Congress against President Obama's plans, and about 47 Senators who signed a poorly written letter to Iran declaring no confidence in their own President's foreign policy.

News outlets and social media channels seem to be constitutionally incapable of reporting good news -- unless the good news is about panda bears or Kim Kardashian's butt. We should all feel free to forget the noise from Benjamin Netanyahu and Mitt Romney and recognize that the signing of this Iran deal will be a great and historic thing. When this agreement is signed, there ought to be dancing in the streets -- all streets, everywhere in the world.

Our media outlets are so incapable of reporting good news that you might even have first heard about this historic Iran deal in a Literary Kicks blog post last November titled "Ending Sixty Years of Bad Karma With Iran". We're not in the breaking news business here at Litkicks, and yet we took the trouble to fill you in on the happy developments last year, while most professional news outlets remained silent until they found a tasty way to frame the news as a bitter controversy instead of a blessed breakthrough. Wake up, people! From Havana to Tehran to Obama's White House, smart politicians are trying to make good decisions, and they deserve your support.

Why is the Iran peace agreement good? Because it's a peace agreement between several nations that have been bitterly afraid of each other for six decades. This simple truth speaks for itself. Several major nations are afraid of each other right now, and a peace agreement is primarily an attempt to soothe raging paranoia.

The paranoia in pervasive. Many Americans I know are completely ignorant of the Iranian view of history, and cannot comprehend how frightened Iran is of the world powers who supported the Shah's oppressive (but oil-friendly) oligarchy from 1953 to 1979. Anybody who needs an explanation for Iran's hatred of Europe and USA only needs to read up on the history of Iran in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. That would be a valuable education for many Americans who think the problems between Iran and the USA only began in 1979.

But Iran isn't the only frightened party in 2015. Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a diagram of an imaginary bomb, while Tom Cotton seethes in the Senate. On Facebook, I hear my own friends express a sense of surreal terror that the villains in Tehran will surely take advantage of the deal to secretly build a nuclear bomb and blow up Tel Aviv, or New York City if they can reach it. This kind of primal paranoia appears hysterical when rationally examined, but the level of popular hysteria cannot be denied. Perhaps this is the nicest thing that can be said about Tom Cotton, the young pro-military Iraq veteran who has now made himself famous for writing a letter to Iran. He did not write this letter to advance his own career (though he has in fact advanced his career, and will probably be a popular face on Fox News for the next fifty years). He wrote this letter because he really thinks Iran is going to blow up the world. He's ignorant, but he's not cynical.

This kind of paranoia is what peace agreements are designed to cure. Difficult negotiations allow embattled leaders on all sides of an unbridgeable dispute to exchange information and ask questions. Peace agreements permit various kinds of conversation and commerce to slowly spin up, allowing cultural and economic interchange on new levels. They empower moderates at the expense of extremists -- and if that's not good news with regard to Iran and the rest of the world, I don't know what is.

Is it ever possible for a peace agreement to be a bad thing? Those who oppose this agreement right now point to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1938, but that famous example is full of hot air. Even a failed peace agreement like the Munich deal of 1938 does little actual damage, and of course the primary cause of the Second World War was not Neville Chamberlain -- it was the First World War.

It was right before that ruinous war began, back in the muddled summer months of 1914, that Europe's paranoid nations lost their last chance for a significant peace agreement, and instead began the process of systematically slaughtering each other for the next few decades.

Its 2015, and we're not going to make those mistakes anymore. The peace agreement between Iran, USA, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China that will be signed next week is glorious good news. I'll be dancing in the streets when it's finally signed -- even if I have to go dancing alone.

7

Forget the noise. Despite the loud opposition, the peace agreement that will hopefully conclude this week is a great and historic step forward for every nation in the world.

view /IranDeal
Sunday, March 15, 2015 08:41 am
International talks over Iran peace agreement
Story
Levi Asher

"Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay?" That intriguing response is one of many I elicited from J. C. Hallman, author of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, a bright, funny and expansive account of a rewarding and investigative personal journey through another living writer's unusual career.

This other writer is Nicholson Baker, whose dynamic and wide-ranging intelligence would intimidate many young critics with less gusto than J. C. Hallman. Baker's literary chops are immense and his philosophical and social convictions deeply inspiring, though his intellectual experiments sometimes leave even his most enthusiastic readers cold. Here is my conversation with J. C. Hallman about an author we both admire very much.

LEVI: So, in 1991 the up-and-coming author Nicholson Baker wrote a book called U and I in which he dared to place himself on nearly equal terms with the literary lion John Updike. I say "nearly equal terms" because the book avoided a conventional critical tone of piety and humility towards Updike, and instead brashly showcased the freewheeling talents and original visions of its author.

Now in 2015, you have written a book called B & Me in which you dare to place yourself on nearly equal terms with Nicholson Baker ... who is by now a literary lion in his own rights.

I'm happy to tell you that I think you pulled it off with great style. But I'm wondering if you felt intimidated by the audacity of your act in dreaming up "B & Me". Was it difficult to conjure up enough confidence in yourself as a writer to take on Nicholson Baker in the same format that Nicholson Baker once used to take on John Updike? Or rather was the audacity of this challenge one of the attractions of the project for you?

J. C.: As Baker suggests in U and I, writers should strive to avoid finding a groove and coasting for their entire careers, and I think I would actually find it hard to muster the energy a book-length project requires if didn’t appear daunting at first, if it didn’t challenge me, or even threaten me, in some way.

Which isn't to say that mustering the energy for a book is easy. Once I sold the proposal for B & Me –- a story in and of itself –- I went through about a month-long period of complete paralysis. I was terrified that all I’d done was invent a way to fail. That feeling started to go away only when I really got into the reading of Baker’s books and realized that my instincts about the project had been correct. From that point on, the book wasn’t easy to write, by any means, but it felt like an inspired project, and the process of emulating Baker emulating Updike forced me to find new reserves in myself.

LEVI: Nicholson Baker often appeared to be channelling the literary voice of John Updike in U and I, and I sensed you channelling the voice of Nicholson Baker often in B & Me. For instance, this sentence, which appears towards the end:

Our tactile experience of a book is that each of its "pages" has a front and a back, and these fronts and backs, somewhat confusingly, are also called "pages".

I'd recognize that as a Bakeresque sentence if I saw it all by itself on a subway at midnight. It delivers an original realization of a commonplace absurdity -- the fact that a "page" is at once a single thing and a doubling of the single thing, which certainly ought to be illegal as far as precise language goes -- and yet it accepts this absurdity with a sense of wonder and openness rather than complaint. If that's not Bakeresque, I don't know what is. Did you find yourself intentionally writing and/or thinking like Nicholson Baker as you wrote this book? Is it something you tried to do intentionally, or something you tried not to do but did anyway?

J. C.: Yes, but not in a strictly imitative sense. Geoff Dyer's great book Out of Sheer Rage does this same sort of thing with the fretful voice of D.H. Lawrence, as Dyer hears him in his correspondence, and for me that's a variation on something James Agee says about writers using words to embody subjects. Embodiment is the purest form of understanding or communion, and I’ve always tried to become that which I hoped to be able to describe. I was very conscious of moments in the book when I was indulging in Baker-style thinking, but I was aware too when I was departing from what he would say, or how he would say it.

Of the former, there was once, in the book, a longish passage about what it feels like to finger-pry a book down from a tightly packed bookshelf, the almost hydraulic feel of the book covers sliding against one another. That description wound up getting cut -- only the term "finger-pried" remains –- and maybe, in the end, it was a moment that I felt was too Bakerian, or needlessly so.

LEVI: Nicholson Baker has made his wife Margaret Brentano a constant presence in his books, where she often plays a comforting role. (Like you, I was worried about Baker's own mental stability when Paul Chowder revealed that his beloved Roz had left him in The Anthologist, and was slightly relieved when he and Roz seemed to try to get back together in "Traveling Sprinkler", even though I don't think Paul and Roz's chances for happiness together looked great at the end of that book.)

Similarly, you've put your partner Catherine near the core of this book, and even gave her the honor of echoing some of the scenes of scatological awkwardness that were so memorable in Baker's "Room Temperature". Since you and I are Facebook friends (though we've never met in real life), I hope you aren't shocked to learn that I peeked at your pages to see if there was a real-life Catherine. There is, and she's quite charming and fascinating. So I'm curious -- how did she react to being featured so prominently in your book?

J. C.: The book is dedicated to Catherine, but never was a dedication so much of an understatement. Catherine was there from the very beginning, buying me Baker books when I had only hinted that I might want to read him. She realized before I did that what I really needed to do was read someone long and deep. That’s what she’d been doing her whole life, actually – and that's what she does now as a professional editor. So Catherine is present in the book in the form that Proust says is the real reason we read: as an "incitement." In short, the book is not merely indebted to Catherine: she made it possible, and then she made it better when she read it and edited it.

Lastly, I disagree that Paul and Roz of Traveling Sprinkler are not destined for happiness. It’s love! Love!

LEVI: Let's talk about Traveling Sprinkler, then. This is Baker's newest book, and I have to mention that I really hated Traveling Sprinkler. I hate nearly half of Nicholson Baker's books -- the reason I am a big Nicholson Baker fan is that I really, really love the ones I don't hate. But, yeah, I hated Traveling Sprinkler.

I think I have more trouble with Baker's really extreme sexual exhibitionism than you do. As I'm reading Traveling Sprinkler I'm thinking: wait a minute, just because I love The Mezzanine and Human Smoke I have to suffer through this? Reading the book did make me feel like I was being sprinkled upon, if you know what I mean ... and I don't believe for a minute the narrator's suggestion that the title evokes a piece of gardening machinery.

But now this presents a very interesting "rhyme" with B & Me -- a section in which you come to the realization that Nicholson Baker's relationship with his authors is, shall we say, "ejaculative" ... and you seem to consider this a positive aspect of his work. So, did you write that section of the book before or after "Traveling Sprinkler" was published, and did you also notice the rhyme?

J. C.: The quick answer to the last part of your question is that Traveling Sprinkler wasn't released until I was mostly done with B & Me, but yes, I did notice the rhyme.

Traveling Sprinkler offered support to many things I’d gone out on a limb to suggest in B & Me, so for me it was a very validating book, almost like a list of all the things I'd gotten right about Baker's career and thought. And I think that maybe returns to the first part of your question, because even when I read The Fermata and found it to be a lesser book than some of his others, I recognized that it contained ideas that were essential to understanding those "better" books. I suppose what I came around to was the idea that you can read the books of certain authors (and maybe Baker is a perfect example of this) like individual chapters of the vast novel of their career. You don’t hate Infinite Jest or The Grapes of Wrath because they've got a clunker chapter or two. And perhaps what I was trying to suggest in B & Me is that we should be thinking of reacting to writers' careers as a whole, rather than judging individual books inside of it.

That said, who hasn’t had the exact experience of a writer that you describe? We love some books, hate others. It’s probably safe to say that most human intimate relationships, with lovers, with our families, exhibit a similarly wide ranges of emotions, from love to hate. Why should a relationship with a writer be any different?

LEVI: I have one pet theory involving Traveling Sprinkler -- yes, even when I hate a Nicholson Baker book, I will take the time to analyze it -- which is that the character of Roz is named after Rocinante in Don Quixote, and that Paul Chowder sees himself as Don Quixote. (The fact that he names his erstwhile love interest after Rocinante instead of Dulcinea is certainly some type of wry irony.)

I'll probably never find out if this theory is true or not ... and actually I'm much more impressed by your theory that Nicholson Baker titled U and I after Martin Buber's I and Thou. That's a very intriguing theory -- but then Nicholson Baker himself shoots it down. Or does he? When he told you that U and I was not in fact titled after I and Thou, did you feel certain that he was telling the truth?

I'd also like to hear more about the Martin Buber connection -- whether it's true or not that this was intended by Baker, what do you think it signifies?

J. C.: Rocinante to Roz is a bit of a stretch, isn't it? He could have gone with Rocky, sometimes a woman's name. I feel compelled to point out, too, that Arno's girlfriend in The Fermata is Rhody. I think it speaks very highly of Baker’s work that he inspires – or arouses – this kind of frantic digging for whatever lies beneath the surface.

Baker told me he hadn’t read Buber –- not that he hadn’t heard of him, or thought of him, when titling U and I. I didn't mention looking into this in B & Me, but it's been suggested (in the John Updike Encyclopedia) that Updike revealed sympathy for Buber's I/Thou formulation, and even thought of it as a version of the writer-reader relationship, in A Month of Sundays. And A Month of Sundays is one of the Updike books that Baker cites directly in U and I ...

What does this signify? Maybe simply that the way literature shapes us isn't always direct. I finally read U and I when I realized that it had found a way to influence and shape me, via a kind of remote influence, without my yet having read it. So when I read it, finally, it wasn't just a gathering of information –- it was an act of recognizing how I'd become who I've become. Seems like a pretty good reason to read books.

LEVI: I loved the section near the end of your book when you finally met Nicholson Baker, when you frankly evaluated the real-life apparition of Nicholson Baker as you experienced him yourself. You watched him awkwardly interact with a townie friend, a lady whose name he couldn't remember, and you wrote:

That's when my heart just about melted for Nicholson Baker.

This poignant scene really anchored the book for me, and made me realize how sad Nicholson Baker often seems. It reminds me of the moment during his rather subdued recent appearance on TV when Stephen Colbert asked him "are you okay?". Do you ever wonder if Nicholson Baker is okay?

And while we're on the topic, are you okay?

J. C.: Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay? Like monks or mystics, we ask them to suffer a bit, and by suffering extract something –- some wisdom – from their experience and offer it up. This makes our own lives not more comfortable, really, but perhaps more understood. My heart broke for Baker because I was witnessing his suffering first hand –- the suffering that had resulted in the books I'd grown to love.

I felt an immense gratitude, and it was a weird gratitude because it would have been totally inappropriate for me to express it to him at that moment, in a live human context. Literature is, perhaps, human empathy outside the context of being able to, or even wanting to, ameliorate another person's condition. Writers suffer and offer us wisdom and understanding, and we offer them careful attention, but nothing more, in return. It's a gift.

That said, I’m fine!

LEVI: I'm actually not that familiar with Martin Buber's work either, though I've always known and loved the title I and Thou. (I can now console myself that I'm in good company with Nicholson Baker on the Martin Buber front, though apparently I need to catch up with you and John Updike).

But I am more familiar with the philosophy of William James, clearly also a favorite of yours, and I'm extremely intrigued by the Jamesian thread -- William, and also Henry -- that carries throughout B & Me. I'm particularly intrigued because William James, like Nicholson Baker, was an outspoken pacifist. What do you think William James means as a philosopher to Nicholson Baker, and what do you think the two have in common as philosophers?

J. C.: Baker's James influence goes all the way back to the earliest days of career. When James pops up in U and I, from 1991, it's in the form of a memory from 1981. Almost all the James references in Baker’s career come from a few pages of James's The Principles of Psychology, the chapter, unsurprisingly, about the stream of consciousness. So, early on, Baker’s interest in James seems related to his thinking on thought, and Baker’s own interest in cognitive analogies.

But James is a strange literary influence. Some writers, like David Foster Wallace and Robert Pirsig, seem more indebted to the James of The Varieties of Religious Experience, whereas writers like William Gass and Baker seem more indebted to The Principles of Psychology. That said, Baker inserted into his Paris Review interview a sly reference to one of James's most famous essays, "Is Life Worth Living?" So, to return to your last question a bit, it would seem that Baker recognizes himself to be one of James's "sick souls" -- those who cannot simply blink away the darker sides of life.

LEVI: Can you tell us about the other books you've written? In particular, what novelistic themes or approaches do you believe you have in common with Nicholson Baker?

J. C.: Well, I've not yet published a novel, though I do have a collection of short stories, The Hospital for Bad Poets. But even there, I felt anticipated by Baker. I have a couple of sexually explicit stories that feel informed by Baker even though I hadn't read his sex books when I wrote them. I have a story, too, that features a man and his young nephew playing a violent video game together –- written long before Baker wrote a New Yorker essay about playing violent video games with his son.

When Baker and I met, he told me that as a young man he had tried his hand at correspondence chess – and my first book was about the chess subculture (I interviewed a famous murderer, Claude Bloodgood, who was a correspondence chess champion.) When I say, in B & Me, that it started to seem as though I didn’t really have an imagination of my own, I really meant it!

LEVI: Here's a quote I like from B & Me:

Incidentally, [the New Yorker short story] "Snorkeling" has an enticing typo: an open parenthesis that never closes. Given the New Yorker's attention to detail and the fact that "Snorkeling" has never been reprinted, it's tempting to wonder whether it's actually not a typo, whether Baker is suggesting that we think of the rest of the story, the rest of his career, as contained within a parenthetical statement that will never end."

I think that explains why I like Nicholson Baker so much -- because I believe he really did plan that typo, and as you suggest he probably had to do a hell of a hustling job to get it past the New Yorker copy editors. Nicholson Baker might be the only writer who would work that hard to create a typo in the New Yorker. Did you place any similar devices or easter eggs or time-bombs in B & Me? You can at least toss your readers a hint.

J.C.: I don’t know that I'm willing to suggest that the typo in "Snorkeling" was intentional –- it was Baker's second or third published story, and wouldn't it have been hard for him to argue for something that experimental? Too much pride at The New Yorker for that –- though that pride is much deserved.

That said, the rest of your question intrigues me. In B & Me, I liken myself to the unnamed critic in Henry James's famous story, "The Figure in the Carpet", who fancies himself a sleuth on the trail of some heretofore unseen idea in the work of a famous writer. True, the writer tells him that there’s something there to be found –- a figure in the carpet of his career that no one else has ever seen. And I have to admit that there are a couple things in B & Me that stand out very loudly for me, systemic things that were very much part of why I wrote the book the way I did, but which early readers of the book haven't really remarked upon. A hint? A hint would ruin the hunt!

But it is worth noting that readers tend to be more willing to plumb the depths of fiction than nonfiction. That’s too bad, because even within the constraint of nonfiction, it's possible to be enticingly subtle, and to offer rewards to the careful, persistent reader.

0

"Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay?" That intriguing response is one of many I elicited from J. C. Hallman, author of a new book about Nicholson Baker.

view /HallmanAndBaker
Tuesday, March 10, 2015 10:59 am
JC Hallman's book "B & Me"
Story
Levi Asher

GET RID OF MEANING. YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU: NOW EAT YOUR MIND.

I saw Kathy Acker's name fly by in a tweet yesterday. Her name carries power for those who remember it. Alternative and transgressive literature blossoms in today's Internet-powered cultural scene, but there was a time (back when Ronald Reagan was President and a lot of things were lamer than they are today) when Kathy Acker was the only young punk writer in the world with any amount of fame. That was a lonely era for a serious indie voice of the streets, but Kathy Acker played her role with style and class.

She died of cancer in 1997, when she was only 50 years old and had a lot more writing to do. Looking back at her body of work today, it seems clear that empowerment was always her mission. Her literary role models were men -- William S. Burroughs, Charles Olsen, Jerome Rothenberg -- but her influence seems to be most strongly felt among woman writers who heard her call for empowerment via unapologetic self-expression. Her influence can be traced through many voices that have dared to be brash over the years, from Patti Smith, Mary Gaitskill, Tama Janowitz and Maggie Estep to JT Leroy, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Porochista Khakpour, Paula Bomer. Every one of these controversial writers must have had to dig deep within to find the confidence to write without fear. They may not have followed Kathy Acker's direction, but they did walk in her trail.

Acker may be best remembered for writing very frankly about painful topics like child rape and prostitution. But she was also a blazingly original theorist with a constant urge to liberate classic fiction/poetry texts from any sense of ownership, property or meaning. She called herself a "pirate" and freely spliced together texts belonging to other writers, acting decisively upon the impulse that would eventually find expression in David Shields' Reality Hunger. One example of a literary cut-up that did not get Kathy Acker into trouble was her novel Don Quixote, in which a terrified young woman lying on a bed in an abortion clinic transforms herself into the knight Don Quixote, and eventually selects a dog as her Sancho Panza. This book didn't get Kathy Acker into trouble because Miguel de Cervantes was long dead.

But she did get in trouble when she cut up a comically commercial sex scene from a Harold Robbins bestselling potboiler into her own transgressive novel, and her account of the agony she went through when Harold Robbins demanded an apology (and her own publisher refused to stand behind her) stands today as a vivid, pained document of the agony of a struggling writer drowning in a world of misunderstanding. This account, titled Dead Doll Humility, may be the most accessible thing she ever wrote. If somebody wants to read one thing by Kathy Acker, this piece would be a good choice. It begins in screaming caps:

IN ANY SOCIETY BASED ON CLASS, HUMILIATION IS A POLITICAL REALITY. HUMILIATION IS ONE METHOD BY WHICH POLITICAL POWER IS TRANSFORMED INTO SOCIAL OR PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS. THE PERSONAL INTERIORIZATION OF THE PRACTICE OF HUMILIATION IS CALLED 'HUMILITY'.

CAPITOL IS AN ARTIST WHO MAKES DOLLS. MAKES, DAMAGES, TRANSFORMS, SMASHES. ONE OF HER DOLLS IS A WRITER DOLL. THE WRITER DOLL ISN'T VERY LARGE AND IS ALL HAIR, HORSE MANE HAIR, RAT FUR, DIRTY HUMAN HAIR, PUSSY.

As the piece progresses, the author's voice becomes tentative and weak following the repeated application of public disapproval and apathy. Dead Doll Humility presents the losing struggle of a writer clinging desperately to the right to write, against all opposition:

Want to play. Be left alone to play. Want to be a sailor who journeys at every edge and even into the unknown. See strange sights, see. If I can't keep on seeing wonders, I'm in prison. Claustrophobia's sister to my worst nightmare: lobotomy, the total loss of perceptual power, of seeing new. If had to force language to be uni-directional, I'd be helping my own prison to be constructed.

There are enough prisons outside, outside language.

The Los Angeles Times article by Carolyn Kellogg that caused Kathy Acker's name to fly happily before my eyes yesterday offers some good news: a new book of letters between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark called I'm Very into You: Correspondence 1995--1996 has just been published by Semiotext(e), which describes the correspondence as "a Plato's Symposium for the twenty-first century, but written for queers, transsexuals, nerds, and book geeks".

A Plato's Symposium for the twenty-first century is a tall order. But there's no doubt that our current epoch can use more Kathy Acker.

3

Kathy Acker's "Dead Doll Humility" presents the struggle of a writer to persevere against all opposition.

view /KathyAcker
Tuesday, February 24, 2015 09:02 am
Kathy Acker, Writer
Story
Levi Asher

Twenty-five centuries ago, a Hindu scholar named Panini produced an analysis of the Sanskrit language so remarkable that later language theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure would eventually cite it as the foundation of linguistics itself. Panini shows up in Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, a new book by novelist and computer programmer Vikram Chandra, who describes the ancient scholar's achievement thus:

His objects of study were both the spoken language of his time, and the language of the Vedas, already a thousand years before him. He systemized both of these variations by formulating 3,976 rules that -- over eight chapters -- allow the generation of Sanskrit words and sentences from roots, which are in turn derived from phonemes and morphemes ...

The rules are of four types: (1) rules that function as definitions; (2) metarules -- that is, rules that apply to other rules; (3) headings -- rules that form the bases for other rules; and (4) operational rules. Some rules are universal while others are context sensitive; the sequence of rule application is clearly defined. Some rules can override others. Rules can call other rules, recursively. The application of one rule to a linguistic form can cause the application of other rule, which may in turn trigger other rules, until no more rules are applicable. The operational rules "carry out four basic types of operations on strings: replacement, affixation, augmentation, and compounding."

This is interesting on its own, but a reader who shares Vikram Chandra's familiarity with technology will probably notice how much fun Vikram Chandra is having here with words that have become standard computer programming jargon: "rules" and "metarules", "override", "recursion", "trigger", "operations on strings". The problems that concerned Panini as he read the Rig Veda in 400 BCE are apparently the same problems that concern software developers around the world today.

Geek Sublime is subtitled "The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty". I suspect this catchy subtitle was suggested by the publisher's marketing department, because it promises a much simpler equation than this unique work actually delivers. There's nothing very original about finding beauty in computer programs, which have aspired to be "elegant" since the days of FORTRAN and COBOL. Geek Sublime does touch upon the familiar topic of beauty in its first chapter, "Hello World!", but only as the starting point for a series of independent explorations that refuse to combine and intersect in predictable ways. I expected Geek Sublime to be an extroverted book, an accessible work of non-fiction, but in fact I'm now sure that Vikram Chandra wrote it with a novelist's mind, and even with a novelist's refusal to tie up loose ends.

Geek Sublime turns out to be a work of imagination and suggestion, a core dump of various ideas that have obsessed its author as he writes fiction and codes algorithms on the same keyboard. This is not a book that can be described by a flowchart, but it delivers something more worthwhile than a pat message: an invitation into the author's own peculiar ideas about language and logic as they manifest themselves in our everyday lives.

The topics Chandra touches upon here include:

The Soul of the Indian Programmer: In the early 1950s, India's government had the bright idea to start setting up the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) system and importing mainframe computers for its fledgling computer scientists to learn on. This program was, obviously, a gigantic success, even though the soul of the Indian programmer remains mysterious to others, techie and non-techie alike. As a member of this global community, Chandra explains its contradictions, such as an alleged attitude of humility that masks a competitive intensity strangely invisible to outsiders. As an American-born techie who has often had the pleasure of being outnumbered by Desis in cubicle farms, I particularly enjoyed Chandra's point of view about the meaning of technology in the life of a modern Indian immigrant to America. I also enjoyed learning a few new words -- like jugaad, a creative workaround designed to solve a tough problem -- that I've never actually heard in any office, since the Indian programmers I work with (unlike Vikram Chandra) communicate with me exclusively in English. The richness of this vocabulary makes me wish they wouldn't always do so.

Gender and Ethnicity in the Workplace. Vikram Chandra recognizes the character of Raj in the TV comedy "The Big Bang Theory" all too well: an Indian "brain", awkward and unconfident, lacking the bull-headed masculinity of another techie stereotype: the superhero invincible programmer who can handle the toughest languages and debug the worst disasters with ease. This leads Chandra into a topic he has less first-hand knowledge of: the difficulties female programmers face in the overwhelmingly male world of software development.

This is a very relevant topic today, but like the book's subtitle it may have been grafted onto this book in an appeal for sales-worthy relevance, as Vikram Chandra really doesn't have anything new to add to this much-discussed controversy, except to point out that Indian programmers also sometimes struggle to fit into raucous American workplaces. These sections of the book are less successful than others also because Chandra seems to lack firsthand observation: while this novelist certainly is a real computer programmer, he does not appear to have held a full-time job in a technology department for a long time, and does not have his own stories to tell.

The Search for Elemental Roots of Language: modern programming languages are designed to be expressive and readable, which means they are abstracted by several layers from the actual physical instructions that are executed by the computer processor itself. These physical instructions are called "machine code" and are written in machine language, which is expressed in hexadecimal expressions that correlate to a more readable format known as "assembly code" written in assembly language.

In describing the work of the ancient linguist Panini, Chandra points out the traditional belief that Sanskrit words have roots in primal sounds that actually express the true nature of the universe. This is a lovely belief (of course, for all we know it may be true), especially when considered alongside the primal electronic structures known as logic gates, the tiny physical circuits that actually run machine code instructions on the processor chips that live deep inside each computer.

Like Chandra, I am also a longtime admirer of logic gates, and I can sense the novelist's true techie nature as he obsesses over the psychological metaphors these circuits provide, and when he provides photos of actual logic gates built with Lego blocks, movable by gears and dials.

The search for a physical corollary to language may be closer to Geek Sublime's elusive core than anything else. The book is much more about rootedness than about beauty -- though I guess "The Rootedness of Code, the Code of Rootedness" would not have worked as a subtitle.

This section unintentionally reveals how rapidly the field of software technology is changing, because the examples Chandra uses in this section would have made more sense twenty years ago than they do today. (Like me, Chandra became a computer programmer in the 1980s, though unlike me he was able to make enough money writing to stop coding full-time.) In the chapter titled "The Language of Logic" Chandra implies that C# programs are compiled into machine language instructions that run directly on a processor's circuits. While this might be true if he were writing in C++, a language that has stubbornly resisted virtualization, Vikram Chandra is actually simplifying a much more complex story here, since modern computer languages like C#, Java and PHP tend to run in virtual environments that sever the programmer's direction connection with the computer's physical circuitry. If a computer is like a film projector, it's a simple fact that C# and Java and PHP programmers do not get to ever create the film that runs on the spool. In the age of cloud computing and virtual machines, we are much farther away from the physical chip than we were twenty years ago when Chandra was actively hacking for a living.

Dhvani and Rasa: along with new Sanskrit words for various flavors of technological frustration and revelation, I'm happy to learn from Geek Sublime a new vocabulary for artistic expression. Dhvani and rasa appear to represent the full appreciation of the meaning of a work in both an objective and subjective sense, and that's as much as I can confidently explain about these fascinating words, which I did not know before I read Geek Sublime. I may need to read the book a second time -- or follow up on some of the Sanskrit texts it beguilingly teases -- before I can try to explain these terms better. Till then, though, I'm happy to have them in my toolkit, where they may find some use.

Like the fascinating vocabulary it presents, Geek Sublime is certainly a work of depth and serious purpose. It's not the trendy nonfiction book it pretends to be, which is why I suspect it may actually be a novelist's latest novel in disguise. It works well enough that I'm looking forward to checking out the author's earlier ones.

1

A novelist and computer programmer explores the intersection of the two worlds.

view /GeekSublime
Sunday, February 15, 2015 10:08 am
Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra
Story
Levi Asher

There are some days when only a very old poem will do. Sometimes a 2600-year-old poem. Here are a few selections from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work. -- Levi

Chapter 43

The softest things of the world
Override the hardest things of the world
That which has no substance
Enters into that which has no openings
From this I know the benefits of unattached actions
The teaching without words
The benefits of actions without attachment
Are rarely matched in the world

Chapter 44

Fame or the self, which is dearer?
The self or wealth, which is greater?
Gain or loss, which is more painful?
Thus excessive love must lead to great spending
Excessive hoarding must lead to heavy loss
Knowing contentment avoids disgrace
Knowing when to stop avoids danger
Thus one can endure indefinitely

Chapter 20

Cease learning, no more worries
Respectful response and scornful response
How much is the difference?
Goodness and evil
How much do they differ?
What the people fear, I cannot be unafraid
So desolate! How limitless it is!
The people are excited
As if enjoying a great feast
As if climbing up to the terrace in spring
I alone am quiet and uninvolved
Like an infant not yet smiling
So weary, like having no place to return
The people all have surplus
While I alone seem lacking
I have the heart of a fool indeed – so ignorant!
Ordinary people are bright
I alone am muddled
Ordinary people are scrutinizing
I alone am obtuse
Such tranquility, like the ocean
Such high wind, as if without limits
The people all have goals
And I alone am stubborn and lowly
I alone am different from them
And value the nourishing mother

Chapter 29

Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose
Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force
Therefore the sage:
Eliminates extremes
Eliminates excess
Eliminates arrogance

Chapter 22

Yield and remain whole
Bend and remain straight
Be low and become filled
Be worn out and become renewed
Have little and receive
Have much and be confused
Therefore the sages hold to the one as an example for the world
Without flaunting themselves – and so are seen clearly
Without presuming themselves – and so are distinguished
Without praising themselves – and so have merit
Without boasting about themselves – and so are lasting
Because they do not contend, the world cannot contend with them
What the ancients called "the one who yields and remains whole"
Were they speaking empty words?
Sincerity becoming whole, and returning to oneself

2

Five verses from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work.

view /Tao2015
Monday, February 2, 2015 09:25 pm
Rippon Train Station in Virginia
Story
Levi Asher

"Atheists are as dull," the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote, "who cannot guess God's presence out of sight."

I don't know if atheists are dull or not, but lately I've been feeling the incredible dullness of political pundits and commentators who have nothing but gloomy cynicism to offer, who cannot see the dynamic nature of the changes that take place on this planet every day. What can be duller than a person who truly and deeply believes in statements like these about the human condition, about the prospects for the future of our world?

Nothing will ever change.

Politics is just a lot of noise.

It's a corrupt game. Only the worst people can win.

This week, USA President Barack Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro reached a historic (though still informal) agreement to suddenly end the state of hostility that has existed between these neighbors for 53 years. The news dropped in the middle of a busy holiday season news week, briefly dominating social media and the airwaves for a few hours between other major global political stories involving CIA torture and North Korean cyberterrorism. I wonder if many people do not realize how momentous the news about Cuba is.

Until the announcement dropped, few people expected such a definitive single stroke, and many might have doubted that such a thing could be possible. Who in the world when they woke up this Wednesday morning would have expected that USA and Cuba would simply declare themselves in a state of hopeful peace before the sun would set? And yet it happened. This is an act of great political courage on the part of both President Obama and President Castro, and the announcement has already been greeted with gleeful acclaim on all sides. (Credit must also go out to Pope Francis, who encouraged and embraced the new relationship, and who is starting to look like the coolest Pope of all time.)

The fact that peace agreements can disable and deactivate the effects of years of suspicion and hostility doesn't mean that the suspicion and hostility are wiped away or cured. There are centuries of bad karma to be dealt with between the United States of America and its Caribbean neighbor. Learning about the troubled history of USA/Cuba relations is a vital first step towards making this important friendship real.

When the news of the historic informal peace agreement broke this week, unfortunately, most of the journalistic commentary was incredibly trivial. How will this peace agreement affect Barack Obama's popularity index? Does it give Marco Rubio's presidential aspirations a new boost? I find this type of news coverage very disappointing, and I find it even more disappointing that my own social media feeds are usually dominated by the same kind of short-sighted commentary.

We can better direct our attention towards the long and convoluted history of USA/Cuba relations: the African slave trade, the sugar harvests and rum empires, the Spanish-American War (a war fought largely over control of Cuba and the Phillipines), the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, the missile crisis of 1962, the US military occupation of Guantanamo Bay.

When we critique the leadership style of Fidel and Raul Castro, it's helpful to understand that we are talking about a small country that has been a focal point of global war for centuries, that has naturally developed an oppressive and intolerant government in response. Similarly, when we talk about our recent problems with North Korea, it's helpful to understand the horrifying modern history of that war-torn nation, which like Cuba has been a stomping ground for global powers, suffering greatly and silently through the agony as Russia, Japan, China and the United States fight for its control. An awareness of the history of North and South Korea can give more insight into our current North Korean crisis than the usual dumb jokes about dictators with funny haircuts.

Our pathetic shared history often seems like an insurmountable barrier to world peace, but we can't allow it to be. Fortunately, peace has a momentum of its own, and change moves fast. This is why I am confident that world peace will actually happen, despite all the discouragement and disgruntlement that always surrounds us in our daily lives.

Sometimes positive change will happen because our leaders will take the lead (as Obama and Castro did this week) and the grateful populaces will run to catch up. Other times, change will happen because the people take the lead and the leaders run to catch up (as happened in the USA during the Vietnam War era, and to some extent during the Occupy protests a few years ago).

Either way, it's a happy fact that peace moves fast. I bet this is what John Lennon and Yoko Ono had in mind when they recorded a song called "Move On Fast" in 1972. This is my Christmas song for 2014, Hope they can hear it in Havana too ...

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A historic new approach between USA and Cuba proves how dynamic our planet's future is, even with all the gloomy discouragement and disgruntlement that dominates our conversation.

view /PeaceMovesFast
Thursday, December 18, 2014 07:22 pm
Cuba in Olive, Forest and Lime
Story
Levi Asher

The horrifying report of the US Senate investigation into CIA torture during the Iraq War was released to the public this week, revealing depths of sadism and cruelty that nearly everybody but Dick Cheney considers un-American. When scandals like this are revealed, our first instinct is to look for someone else to blame.

This is a natural instinct, and I followed the instinct myself when I called out Dick Cheney above. But that was a cheap shot, and blaming others for a complex problem always feels like a moral dead end. Did we not all participate in the democratic process that led to the election of the leaders who embraced barbarity on our behalf? Are we not ourselves all to blame?

To blame ourselves seems more enlightened than to blame others. And yet, surprisingly, it brings us no closer to real understanding. Whether we blame others or ourselves, either way we are identifying a flaw in human character as the cause of a terrible problem. We are presuming that bad traits like greed or sadism or toxic ideology or ignorant apathy lead certain individuals (others, ourselves) to make wrong decisions. But we always discover that this realization doesn't improve anything, because no personal judgement will have an impact on problems like torture -- or human slavery or terrorism or genocide or any other form of geopolitical atrocity. Even when we occasionally manage to put some evildoers in jail, we don't seem to be fixing the underlying problems at all.

Imagine a bunch of people floating on rafts towards a waterfall that will soon kill them all. They are all paddling as hard as they can in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Some are using their hands, some are kicking their legs, others are trying to lash their rafts together. They are all yelling at each other that somebody else is doing it wrong, or they are crying for help because they know they are themselves doing it wrong. But the key point is this: they are all going to go over the waterfall. It doesn't matter whether they paddle with their hands or kick with their legs. It doesn't matter what any of them think, or what any of them say. They are in the grip of a force of nature. They are floating on a river that is carrying them against their will.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, it may be the case that a CIA torture scandal was simply inevitable. It may not have mattered what Dick Cheney thought, or what any Cabinet official or Washington Post reporter or angry voter did. It may be that the CIA's descent into barbarity was an inevitable result of the invasion of Iraq. The actions of certain powerful individuals surely made the torture scandal worse, and the actions of certain other individuals may have made the scandal less horrible. But this is like the difference between people who are paddling fast or paddling slow to get away from the waterfall. Either way, they are all going over.

When we discuss atrocities like the CIA torture scandal, we should try to puzzle out the actual forces of nature that caused the atrocity. Just as a river is stronger by levels of magnitude than any individual swimmer, decisions made during time of war seem to always follow a natural logic that is far more powerful than that of any individual decision-maker's personality or character. In these situations, we begin to operate according to the logic of the herd mind, whose patterns do not resemble those of the individual mind at all.

This is why it feels so unsatisfying to blame individuals like Dick Cheney (or George W. Bush, or Donald Rumsfeld, etc. etc.), who are no longer even in power. It also feels unsatisfying to blame ourselves; after all, we know we never personally sanctioned torture. To blame ourselves for decisions we know we never made might seem nobly self-sacrificing, but it also feels gratuitous and weak, and leaves us helpless against the likelihood of future atrocities.

If we are perplexed as to what we did wrong last time, what can we do to make sure we don't do the same thing wrong the next time? Are we supposed to vote harder? Go out to the streets and protest ... against exactly what? Should we throw out all our elected officials, based on a magical belief that a new set of politicians will maintain higher moral standards in time of war?

But then, we must ask ourselves, what government ever maintains high moral standards in time of war?

Meanwhile, we're still on our rafts, paddling as hard as we can, and the current is still carrying us towards the waterfall ...

No individual person can institute a policy of government-sanctioned torture. This is an act that requires a group, a collective, a bureaucracy, a herd. It is not the individual mind but the group mind that conjures visions of cruelty. No single person -- not a Napoleon, not a Hitler, not a Mao -- is ever capable of wielding or controlling the kind of power that a herd mind can wield once a war begins.

It's all too easy to fixate on individual personalities and miss this crucial truth. It's easy to imagine that a vile leader like Dick Cheney might actually harbor private urges of psychological or sexual sadism (he looks so creepy that many people believe this about him prima facie, though it may or may not be actually true). But there is very little substance to these speculations. For instance, even if Dick Cheney is a diagnosable sadist, this does not explain the disturbing CIA actions detailed in this week's report. Dick Cheney was never in a prison cell brandishing a whip and a bucket of water and a rectal feeder. It takes a very large bureaucracy to carry out a policy of institutionalized torture over the course of many years. It takes a herd mind.

The mystery of the herd mind explains why individuals who participate in acts of atrocity often appear bewildered when they are caught in the act and called to explain their actions. We see this whenever a historical atrocity occurs. Ask a Turkish politician about the Armenian genocide of 1915. Put a Nazi on a witness stand and ask why he killed Jews. Interview a bunch of Rwandan Hutus who sit in a crowded jail about why they killed Tutsis, or a bunch of Serbians about why they killed Bosnians. You'll always get the same shrug. They aren't hiding the answers. They really don't know why they did what they did.

Again, here's why they did it. They were channeling the herd mind, and the herd mind has a different logic than the individual human mind. In times of peace, the herd mind can be a source of beauty and generosity and wonder. In times of war, the herd mind can lead us to greater levels of evil than almost any of us could ever be capable of dreaming up. In either case, the herd mind's logic always operates differently than the individual mind. And we tend to follow the herd mind's logic as often as we follow our own.

Are we letting individual actors off too easily when we recognize that only a herd mind can commit atrocities like torture or genocide? We could take crowd psychology too far and let this happen, but we should not. The fact that we are all stuck in the river's strong current doesn't mean that we shouldn't observe the different ways that people attempt to paddle. It does no harm to put an Adolf Eichmann or Sloban Milosevic or Dick Cheney in jail, and it provides or would provide a neat (though weak) moral lesson to do so.

Still, we must realize that we solve no problems by punishing individual evil-doers in time of war. Go ahead and put Eichmann and Milosevic and Cheney behind bars, but other fools will take their spots. The herd mind is not choosy about its leaders.

So, how do we begin to understand the nature of the herd mind, so we can at least make better decisions about which herds to join? That's a gigantic topic that will require future discussion, though we laid some groundwork in past weeks when we discussed the fact that a herd mind will always believe in its own moral excellence. (We called this significant discovery The Ashley Wilkes Principle.) We've also noted that fear and paranoia tend to quickly overwhelm the herd mind in times of war, and this does appear to be a key finding that will hopefully lead to future discoveries about possibilities for long-term peace.

This week's USA Senate report on CIA torture disturbed many people around the world, and has stirred many of us to think harder about what can be done. I'm sure that many people are reading various go-to texts for enlightenment. Some may be reading Noam Chomsky or Slavoj Zizek. Some may be reading the US Constitution or the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Some may be reading the Bible or the Dhammapada.

Me, I'm reading a book called Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War by Wilfred Trotter, originally published in 1919. I don't know why I never read this book before, and I have a feeling I'll be writing about it again. Till then, please share any thoughts you have about this topic. I'd love to know if my words on this page are making sense to anyone but me.

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Just as a river is stronger by levels of magnitude than any individual swimmer, decisions made during time of war seem to always follow a natural logic that is more powerful by levels of magnitude than that of any individual's personality or character. In these situations, we begin to operate according to the logic of the herd mind.

view /TortureAndTheHerdMind
Saturday, December 13, 2014 10:51 am
A 1919 Wilfred Trotter book explains a lot today.
Story
Levi Asher